Thank you, Memphis
I don’t really have time tonight to write this. My daughter’s birthday party/sleepover is tomorrow. 13 kids aged 6-10 will be here from 1 in the afternoon to Sunday morning. I still have not written out the hourly schedule, or prepared the last game. Or even showered.
But after homeschooling and preparing the house and the first several games and activities, I find I am incapable of any more productivity until this is written. I don’t normally feel an overwhelming need to talk to others about my day. Frankly, whenever I start, I often find myself stopping because, really, nothing of outstanding significance happened. They don’t really care, and so I stay quiet.
This time is different. I find I just have to talk about yesterday. And since I don’t have anyone to verbalize this all to–you, my lovely readers, get to ‘hear’ all about it!
I went to Memphis yesterday because a professor at the medical science center there happened to watch the live video of me speaking there last year (it was broadcast to the entire college). He then took it upon himself to read the book, then ask me if he could use it as an assignment for his class. He also wanted me to come speak to his class. Hence, my encore visit to the same college yesterday.
I walked in about fifteen minutes early. I chatted with the professor and commented on Facebook about the butterflies that swarmed through my entire system. They got much worse when the students began filing in. These were not kids. These were medical grad students–men and women close to the finish line of medical school. And they were carrying my book. And not just any one of my books, but The Character. My most prized, special and important piece of work. I sat there, swallowing past lumps of nerves as dozens of them walked in. There were probably 45 students.
The professor introduced me and up I walked. I smiled and spoke for about 15 minutes. It was not my normal speech — because they already knew my story. They’d read it and they’d watched me speak via the video. Instead, I talked more about creativity and writing and how we all have something to get us through crisis. I told them about how I would get up out of bed crying in the middle of the night and be unable to sleep until I had written something down. I told them about how I took immense pain and made it my characters’ and how that helped me process the pain and deal with it. I made it through the entire speech dry-eyed, which is amazing. At the end, I opened it up, which I never do, for questions.
I’ll be honest–I’m scared to death of questions at speaking engagements. I’m terrified of being criticized for how I handled things. After all, I chose silence. Luckily, it is almost never asked or even expected of me. This time, however, the professor warned me that they would want to ask questions.
Still, I was unprepared. A girl asked me about the intimacy scenes in ‘Me’ which surprised but delighted me. That led to a discussion on how intimacy is the number one area disrupted or scarred from childhood trauma like mine. We talked about how it was included in the book not because it was a love story really but because Abrielle would not have known real healing without addressing that part of her life. At one point, a guy asked me point blank if I’d ever seen a counselor. No, not if only 1 visit that left me disappointed and nearly traumatized counts. Then another fella stood up and froze my word by asking: “What are your thoughts on forgiveness? Have you forgiven?”
It took all of fifteen seconds for time to stand still, for heat to flood my face and for tears to burn the backs of my eyes. Momentarily caught off guard, I inclined my head and looked to the professor for help. He asked another question, distracting me. But, the forgiveness question lingered in my mind. I did not want to address it, wasn’t even sure it was an appropriate question to ask or answer in this setting, but I knew if I didn’t, my lack of response would be interrupted incorrectly.
So I waited.
A girl melted my heart by asking me what Ash looked like. She asked me if I’d really seen an Ash. “Not one like what’s described in the book,” I answered. “But I did, and do, see my characters. I don’t hear their voices but it’s like I know what they are saying. They are my friends.” Another guy asked me about whether I truly believe all people have a talent that can be as helpful to them as writing was to me; he asked me why writing helped me. Then, toward the halfway mark of the hour, another student rocked my world by asking: “Do you think you are the same person today that you would have been without your past? If not, what would be different?” After feeling more tears sting my eyes, I shook my head. “No I don’t think I’m the same as I would have been. And one of the things that makes me the saddest is that I don’t know who I would have been. I hope, more like my sister.” Finally, the questions began to fade. Before the professor took over though, the forgiveness question lingering in my mind demanded I address it.
I looked toward the student and said: “You asked me if I have forgiven…but you didn’t tell me the rest of the question. Did you mean, have I forgiven him or have I forgiven myself?”
A lot of children don’t tell because they don’t know who to tell. But I did: my mother and I have always been very close and I knew I could tell her. A lot of children don’t tell because they are afraid of retribution. But I wasn’t. I knew what would happen if I told: my mom would make it stop. I could go into the reasons why I didn’t tell but they don’t really matter. What matters, at least in my own heart and mind, is that I didn’t tell. Not until I was 23 and my unborn daughter’s future safety lit a fuse in me. Until then, no one knew because I didn’t tell.
I don’t remember the first time I saw the little girl. All I know is that she sits in the corner of my mind, in a darkened corner, and she is perpetually sad. I never see her face because her knees are bent up, and her head buried in them. Be that as it may, I know she is me. She is the little girl whose innocence was taken, whose heart split. She is always with me. She breaks my heart. I love that little girl, the one that all logic says I had to have been, very much. And I miss her. I cannot talk about her without breaking down in tears. Not only do I love her, though, she also makes me feel very, very guilty because no one can ever give her back the childhood she missed. I could have helped her by telling–but I didn’t. But one year I made her a promise. I would never, ever let anyone hurt her like that again. No one. Ever.
That promise has cost me dearly.
But it is a price I pay because I feel responsible. By not telling, despite whatever reasons I had, I feel like I am I am to blame. It was, in essence, as much my fault as his.
I don’t have the ability to be angry with him, I don’t have the room in my soul to get mad. You can’t hold that much anger what you are so hurt and sad. I fear what I know he is capable of. But before I could forgive him, I’d have to get mad. Before I could forgive him, I’d have to forgive myself and in order to do that, I’d have to truly believe I had nothing to do with that little girl’s broken heart.
They say that forgiveness isn’t really about the other person: it’s about yourself. You can’t move forward, not really, until you let it go. But letting go means coming to peace with it. That’s what I’ve spent 9 years trying to do, through writing and speaking. Forgiveness feels like giving myself the easy way out.
There’s more to childhood abuse than sex. Actually, in my case, it was more about power and games and manipulation. And, even if I had told, it still wouldn’t have changed that first terrible night when innocence was lost. I know that. I know I was only five, nine, eleven, thirteen. I know. But we don’t ask to feel the way we do. Nobody asks to feel guilty. Nobody asks to feel ashamed, or dirty. Nobody asks to feel responsible. I cannot snap my fingers and feel differently.
It’s that I made a promise to the little girl lost.
The trip to Memphis moved me to my core. I came back desperately wanting to talk about it, and being unable to do that. I cried half the way home, but most of my tears were not sad ones. They were tears of thanksgiving. I met people who have been there, who understand. After class, most came to have me sign their books. About five stayed to talk to me for a few extra minutes. One girl hung back. When the others had left, she stepped up. As I signed her book, she said: “I wish I had seen Ash too.” My whole expression changed, and she started crying. I leaned over and hugged her without saying a word, then I started crying. As we broke apart, I said: “It gets better.” She nodded, thanked me and left. In less than a dozen words, we were recipients of a friendship forged through a deep understanding.
The beautiful thing about Ash is that he is available to anyone hurting. For me, he’s whatever character whose story I’m writing. But for that girl, maybe Ash is the feeling she gets when she sees a paintbrush. For the guy who asked about forgiveness, maybe his Ash is a piano or a guitar. For still others, maybe it’s a sport. Whatever it is, a seed is planted within each of us, a seed whose potential is to reap joy, even in the midst of unbelievable, remarkable crisis. Ash doesn’t help us forget….but he helps us feel loved. And worthy. And accepted. And normal.
I’d be lying if I said I’m completely healed. I’d be lying if I said I don’t sometimes still get trapped in bad memories. Healing isn’t an overnight thing–indeed, just when you think you’ve got it mastered, some little nuance shows up and sets you back three paces. But my life is ruled now not by thoughts of my childhood but by joy. I don’t write about it on the blog or speak of it in public because it still rules my life. I speak and write about it because I want the pain to serve a purpose: I want it to help. A guy in the class said, “Sometimes reading the bad parts made think a war zone, it bothered me that much.” That was all the cause I needed to start crying again. It was a perfect description: war.
Yesterday, I in Memphis it did just that. It helped a few of the students….and it helped me too. In fact, I’d swear I saw, sitting in the back row, with a small smile on his face, Ash.